Thingvellir : Center of the Godic Republic (930-1262)
Scandinavia's Age of Progress, extending from about 800-1000 has often been identified with the activities of the Vikings and their aggressive and warlike expansion towards the South. Today there is a welcome tendency to pay more attention to their achievements in normal life. Their peaceful pursuits were as merchants, navigators, explorers, settlers, energetic farmers while all around them life and growth flourished. We should add the art of poetry, which then was everyman's occupation, and the cultivation of their language, which they pursued. For nobody doubts that Scandinavians in the Viking period had more perfect language than ever at any other time in their history. Initiative and originality were the oustnading characteristics of the Scandinavians' in that period. And if they had anything that was perfectly original and "self created" in those times, that was the Godic Republic of Iceland. This Republic had a new form of government with a center for its yearly meeetings at Thingvellir ("Parliament Plains" on the Axe-River.
Although the Althing-Parliament has its precedents and its parallels, its further development; its evolution, took a different course in Iceland. If warfare and weaponry had been an important part of Viking life, it is evident that with the establishment of the Althing in Thingvellir an attempt was made to form an orderly and law abiding society in Iceland. Threre is no doubt that the juristic and process like treatment of the feuds between families helped calm the passions. Then, instead of revenge came a payment or weregild and when this payment had been made, the honor of the family was saved.
The name Thingvöllur (meaning a plain or lawn where a Thing is held) is not unique; neither in Iceland nor abroad. There was in the Western Quarter a place called Thingvellir which was (as recorded in the Eyrbyggja saga) the site of a regular Thing even before the establishment of the Althing. There is the Tynwald on the Isle of Man; a Dingwall on the Orkney Islands and another Dingwall in Scotland. Tingvoll is found in Norway; and in England there are even several names relating to the original Thingvöllr name of the Viking tradition So the name of Thingvellir in Iceland sounded quite familiar in many lands in the Viking era, and had a real significance for them who heard it.
Gudbrandur Vigfússon, an Icelandic scholar of the 19th century assumed that at least three features of landscape and of architecture had to be present anywhere that a Thing was to be held. He listed the following three as essential:
1. A slope, or hill, Thingbrekka, Thinghóll or Lögberg (Law Rock).
2. A Lögrétta (Council Circle), either loosely hedged or built up in a solid earthwork.
3. A Thingvöllr: a plain where the audience could stand.
These three features of the site and its surroundings correspond to the three main factors to be considered in the Thing-meetings and they are:
1. The recitation of the Law; the pronouncement of sentences: issuance of summons; and any announcements: the Lögberg or Law Rock.
2. Judicial proceedings and decisions on the validity of Law, the Lögrétta or the Law Council.
3. The audience of the common Thingpeople - the Thingvöllr.
At Thingvellir on the Axe River there is a common agreement among historians about the precise position of the Lögberg (Law Rock). There is a full agreement although not quite as precise on the place of the Lögrétta (the structure) . Since the Thing- proceedings were so extensive here, thre were two places for the audience to stand on instead of the customary one. The first and the more important place for the audiences of Thingvellir wa on the slope around Lögberg and its immediate vicinity and the second place was at the Lögrétta east of the Axe River. The original or first Parliament plains (thing-völlr) must have been the second of the two places.
Just as the Thing-institution, in its beginning, in Iceland about 930 is a branch of the Things as practiced in Scandinavia in that age - the Scandinavian Thing is itself a branch of the age old Thing institution among the Teutons, which was referred to by Tacitus in his written work titled "Germania of about 100 A.D." In Latin lettered inscriptions from Folk-migration areas there occurs the name "Mars Thingsus" whom we take to be a protection god of the Things (Thor or Tyr).
The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók) states that the Eastern Fjords of Iceland were the first parts of Iceland to become fully settled. Indeed, two of the initiative-takers to the establishment of a common parliament were Ulfljótr and Goat Hair (Geitskör), who were from the Eastern Fjords. A third important supporter of a convention for all Iceland was Thorsteinn Ingólfsson of Reykjavík, who was the son of the first settler there. Where the settlement was most mature, and was older and better organized, the support to a common Althing was strongest and most effective.
Precedents and Parallels: In the Book of Icelanders it is clearly stated that the models and proposals for the first Icelandic Laws were sought at Thorleif-the-Wise's, the Lawman of Gula-Thing located in Western Norway. Accordingly, a stable ar- rangement of the legal procedures had been attained there. Norwegian historians (Holmsen e.al.) assume that this occurred only a few decades prior to the settlement of Iceland. The Law, however, was much older than those procedures themselves. Preserved are remains of the Laws of the Lombards, and of some other nations and peoples of the Teutonic stock. In Norway, there are names and districts of the land with names like Njardarlög (The Laws of Njörd), Tyslög (The Laws of Týr) and Freyslög. (The Laws of Freyr) and others which indicate that in each particular district certain Codes of Laws (perhaps supported by Runic writs) were in force, and that each code- district was protected by some god or divinity.
In Trondheim, Norway, the social organisation was most stable and effective. Here at midsummer the people met at Frosta in the middle of the large Trondheim Fjord to regulate their affairs. Some historians, nevertheless, believe that Frosta was a younger Thingplace than Gula of the Southwest. In the SE part of Norway they had the Heids'vis-lög. In Sweden there were certainly great Things and wise Lawmen, some of whom were Thorgny Thorgnysson of Uppsala, and Emund of Skara in Vaestergotland. In Denmark there was a great Thing at Viborg and another at Öresund. The Thingplace of the Faroe Islands was on Streymoy Island "near the harbour which they call Thor's harbour" (today's Tórshavn), relates the Saga of the Faroese.
"Old Laws of the Land" are also mentioned in the Saga of the Faroese. We have already mentioned the Dingwall of the Orkney's referred to in the Saga of the Orkneys. On the Isle of Man is their famous Tynwald Hill, and they have preserved some ceremonies-traditions even more faithfully than the North.
The only Thing, however, that can be seen as a direct successor and a copy of the Icelandic Thing is the Greenland Thing at Gardar. It was indeed called the Althing, just as its Icelandic model, even though the Greenland Althing was much smaller.- If the colonization of Vinland from the North had come to a total success, the Althing like organisation of government could have spread over the whole of the Western Hemisphere.
The Lögrétta transforms itself into a legislative body.
Úlfljótr, the Lawman, had introduced some law proposals, probably to a district Thing, shortly before the first Althing was held. Goat-Hair (Geit-skör), his fosterbrother travelled around all Iceland in order to introduce the idea of a Common Thing, and won many supporters to that idea. On his travels Goat Hair also was looking for a proper place for his thought-of Parliament. Incidentally, at the same time, a hideous crime (slave murder) was committed by a landowner in the SW, and the man was condemned, (presumably at a Leidvöllr-court) and his estate confiscated for the common good. That place was called, at that time, Blue Woods, after the bluish tinted mist that sometimes is seen over the lava bush when the weather is good. Having this estate available as a Parliament setting, Goat-Hair sent out a message, preferably to his contact men who had promised to build some Main-Temples (höfud-hof), that on a certain day in the early summer, a Thing should be summoned to meet in Blue Woods. In accordance with this summons, chieftains, bold peasants from all parts of the Countrym lawmen, temple priests and prierstesses and a number of other people streamed to the place where cases would now be prosecuted:
"- in that Thing
where bold men should
in full numbered courts be placed". Sigrdrífumál.
"Full-numbered courts" consisted of 36 judges (cp. Egils Saga), as it was in Norway where it was the practice at Things, that three Hersir-s (barons) appointed 12 judges each to make up the right figure for the Lögrétta-court. In Norway the more powerful Earls or Kings could approve or disapprove of what was concluded by the Court. However in the case of the first Common Lögrétta in Blá-skógar, something extraordinary happened, for it was established that neither inside or outside the Common Lögrétta any single ruler overpowered other rulers, as was possible in Norway. Somehow,by arrangements made by the initiative takers, it had been decided who were to be placed in the first Lögrétta. Somehow, it had been arranged who were to be placed in the first Lögrétta - of which everybody had thought as a Court. Primarily that should have been those appointed Main-temple keepers with whom Goat-Hair had negotiated in his expedition around Iceland. Apparently they were primarily the priests of the Main Temples, which Goat Hair had appointed and subsidized. The Hofpriests, so getting preeminence over other Hofkeepers, were called Godwordsmen (Men of a Divine Speech) or Godi-s.
The Godi-s thus took their appointed places in the Lögrétta. When this first court had been ap-pointed it became a paradigm for all that followed - for as soon as those 36 sat themselves down in a circle, they discovered that the power was vested in themselves. They were not there to give verdicts in particular suits, as the people had though originally, but in order to enact and accept law proposals, according to which judgements could be passed. They then accepted Ulfljót', the Lawman's proposals and next to this elected a Lawspeaker instead of the Lawman, yet with extended duties.
The first article of Law they passed from the Lögrétta was the article which forbade any war-ships with war-heads to be admitted into the seas immediately neighboring the shores of Iceland. These seas were known as the Land-sight seas, for they were within the sight-limit of those looking towards the land from ships. With this statute Iceland made itself an independent Country. This statute never failed as long as the Godic Republic lasted. Not a single account gives the slightest hint that this Law was ever broken. With this first enactment of laws, the Godi-s transformed the previous judiciary Lögrétta into a legislative body. In the Godic laws it is stated, that those who sit in the Lögrétta shall "rule law and exceptions from the law). What happened here, in this instance is that the Godi-s were now in full power as legislators. They had sat down in the Lögrétta as judges - everybody expected that and nothing else, but they stood up as Lawmakers and the actual rulers of the land. The whole outcome of the process was that a Godic Republic has been created, and a way of ruling such a state had been laid down.
The Lögrétta appoints Judges. As soon as the Godi-s had enacted the Laws they discovered that it was not fit, and would not work, that they should judge by laws, which they just had passed. Having given the law they felt, indeed, that they should also elect the judges to produce the verdicts. It was said that "the Godi shall walk into a particular pass between the cliffs (Hamraskard) and place his Judge there, according to Godic laws. With this arrangement the judges became 36 in number, as was required for the court, and also of the same number as the Godi's in the Lögrétta. Since there were so many Godi-s to appoint them, the judges became fairly independent. Due to this condition, we assume, it followed that the Godic practice came into being: to separate the judiciary power from the legislative power. This separation was unprecedented in the Middle Ages.
Later, (abt. 964) the courts in the Althing became four in number: one for each Quarter of the Country. They were thus called Quarter courts. Later on they finally added the Fifth court to judge in questionable cases. This fifth court in effect became the highest Court and sat in the Lögrétta edifice between its regular meetings. The other courts usually sat on the Plains around the Lögrétta, close to the river, as it was running then. But these other courts' meetings places could be changed. When Runólfr Ulfsson of Dalr exiled Hjalti-the- Christian, in the year 999 for his blasphemies, Runólfr placed the court's meeting place to the brigdge over the Axe river. The fact that the court could meet on the bridge tells us that the bridge was both strong and spacious.
In the District Things which met each year before the regular Althing meeting, these District Things made court appointments and also the 3 convening Godi-s each appointed 12 judges in accordance with the older practice of appointing a total of 36 judges. At the District Things cases from inside each district and from smaller things were litigated. After being litigated at the District Things cases could be appealed at the higher Althing to its Quarter Courts, and from the Quarter Courts litigation could be referred to the Fifth or Supreme Court.
In legal cases jurys and witnesses were produced in the court whereby witnesses stated what they had perceived relative to the facts of the case to be tried in the court while the jury members only announced what they believed to be true about the case. In this distinction is revealed a more accurate self-observation of the mind processes than was common in the Middle Ages in Europe.
The Executive Power. Executive Power, in suitably unprecise words, was arrangedso that - "he who wants the case, has the case". When a judgement had been passed in a court, there was no police of military who came to seize the condemned person. Those who had opened the case had to bring the judgement to its fulfilment themselves. In practice it was usually the litigant's Godi (or the Godi for himself) who pursued the execution, by his armed men. Most cases were settled by payment, but apart from that were exiles: Three years' exile was common, but up to twenty years in the most serious cases. - When Grettir-the-Strong was exiled (on false grounds, it seems) it was the father of the man whom Grettir had been believed to have killed intentionally - while they were both abroad - this father led the attempts against Grettir, and laid a sum of money as a prize "for his head".
In general it can be said that the common interests of the Godi-s and other responsible people throughout the country provided for the enforcement of the Laws. -An outlawed person had not only to fear the Godi who had prosecuted him, but everybody who helped the outlaw was susceptible to prosecution. The man however, who defied this obligation and gave shelter and support to an outlaw was sometimes admired by the people, which is amply testified by the Sagas.
The Balance of Power between the 36 Godi-s of Iceland rested upon geographical limitations and distances of travel to a particular Main Temple. Although people from far off parts of the country were free, by their own choice, to be "registered" as the followers of any Godi, those were the exceptions, not the rule. By arrangements with the Main Temples any expansion of power seems to have been safely avoided in the beginning. So, for a long time, the size of the power units remained stable.
After the introduction of Christianity, wealth began to be accumulated by the churches. When this happened, several Godi-s took the opportunity to become Priests themselves. Thereby these Godi-s got hold of the wealth of the Church, and the sys-tem of the Church-godi-s began to develop itself.(from ca. 1096. Instead of being managers of the Temples and their property, the Godi-s now made the main churches their sources of wealth. This arrangement was angrily disapproved by some churchmen. Due to its offensive against this arrangement, the Church, in the 13th century, gradually undermined the foundations of Godic power, until they cracked and the rule of foreign Kings was introduced into Icelandic life.
A New Form of Society. The Godic Republic, whether compared with its precedents in Norway of with the social organization found in Europe in the same period (930-1262) is evidently a unique organization in any case. William the Cardinal indign- antly called it "wrongful that Iceland should not serve some King just as all other countries in the world". Even in Norway, where he learned casually about Icelandic matters, this Middle-Ages' represen-tative of christian Europe - William the Cardinal, even expressed dismay against this form of society, unknown to him, which had then existed in Iceland for 300 (years (1247).
If one compares the Godic form of society with the old Norwegian organization, basic differences are revealed. In Norway there was a long ladder of ranks among its people such as: 1. the ordinary peasant (with all his subordinates); 2. a service bound rich farmer (höldr); 3. a district chief (hersir) 4. an Earl (Jarl); 5. a King (konungr). The organization in Norway was primarily after the pattern of the military. Chiefs were at least when war or foreign attack was imminent, in fact Generals of the military. Not a trace of this ladder of ranks can be found in Iceland. Nobody in Iceland was ever called Hersir, nor Earl, nor King; even not höldr, except poetically or rhetorically. The Icelandic social organization, therefore, is no copy of the Norwegian social ranks, although there is no doubt about its Norwegian origins. If we consider the well-to-do landowning farmer as the basic unit of society in Iceland, with his family and servants, then nothing of this superstructure was over him. The only "superior" to an Icelander of that period was the Godi, who was the man of advice or consult in emotional matters, the man of law and social contacts and of the elegant speech at Lögberg, and the man of Faith to gods and men. In reality he became a even a politician, and in critical cases a ruler with weaponed power.
The supporters of the Godi were above all the well- to-do farmers whom we can identify as the Taxpayers. Those who rode to the Thing were primarily from the ranks of the Taxpayers (thegnar), and since the journey was difficult and expensive those who went were exempt from the Thing-journey-tax, while the others who remained at home paid the tax.
The social order in Iceland was built on the right of possession. There were also, in addition to Taxpayers: small farmers, tenants, manual workers and working women. tramps and exiles, fishing people in fishing huts, slaves and bondwomen, coming from the other layers of the social order. Surely there waas a considerable feeling of class distinction - although far less outspoken than in other countries of Europe, and elsewhere, in those times.
Nonetheless, it is evident that the equality between all of the Godi-s at the Althing had its effects all through the society.Those who have not been oppressed, themselves, have less desire to suppress others. Therefore, class distinctions were less felt at every stage.
The weregild (payment to relatives if a man was slain) was equal fro all free men, even for the Godi-s, and that was a condition in sharp contradistinction to the conditions found then in feudal Europe. The urge, in Iceland, for equal rights has always been a prominent desire with the Icelanders up to the present time.